You've finally secured a table at the hottest new restaurant in town. For weeks it's been all over Instagram; everyone you know is talking about it. After thwarted efforts to arrive ad hoc (thanks to queues that stretch round the block), you're now here, and it's time to enjoy your meal over some polite chit chat.
Except, sorry, what was that? I CAN'T HEAR YOU! Your night descends into a nightmare cocktail of shouting and dejected silence. If you're Nigella Lawson, this leaves you unable to even taste your food. "It's utterly draining," Lawson recently said of loud, thumping music in restaurants. "And it drowns out the taste of the food."
Yet, in many instances, restaurants and music do go hand-in-hand and, these days, your grilled fish is as likely to be paired with a carefully curated vinyl collection as a glass of chardonnay. At Ynyshir in Wales, you might find an "On Record Tonight" section of the menu, featuring chef's picks such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or The White Stripes' Elephant. Black Axe Mangal in north London might blare out thumping metal; and Ducksoup in Soho has a record player in the corner, which guests can use. "It all adds to the spirit of how we like things done," says its website.
Music and food are more intertwined than one might think. According to Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, "loud noise can suppress our ability to taste. Liked music means we will enjoy whatever we are tasting slightly more than if disliked music is playing."
So how do these vinyl-collecting restaurateurs ensure happy customers? Music taste, after all, is personal, while something too well known might lead to an impromptu singalong – and no one wants hoards of diners singing Sweet Caroline while they tuck into their crispy squid.
"I have very strong feelings on this," says Stephen Harris, Telegraph columnist and chef-owner of The Sportsman in Kent. "I think you should keep music as unrecognisable as possible. No modern music, as it is divisive. We have a rule of only Delta blues, dub reggae and old Jamaican ska. These create moods rather than demand your attention. I also like French cafe music, occasionally. Oh, and one day I want to play Gregorian chants."
Laura Harper-Hinton, co-founder of Caravan Restaurants in London, has always played music across her five restaurants. "There's stuff that works and stuff that doesn't. Anything too house-y or rocky or folk with too much harmonica is jarring. Jazz can work, but nothing too experimental, no Coltrane tangents. Nice folk works really well, disco as long as it's not too hardcore, and rock if it's the right type."
Music is clearly important to Caravan. Harper-Hinton points to a customer survey which found it to be a key element of the restaurants' atmosphere. "It's an environment people feel comfortable and relaxed in. I'm a massive proponent of music in restaurants, provided it's done in the right way, isn't obtrusive or too loud. We invest a lot into a soundsystem that doesn't affect people's conversations."
Last year, Caravan opened a new Record Room at its Fitzrovia site, largely as a nod to the building's former inhabitant, Radio 1. "It has an incredible history. The kitchen is where Live Lounge sessions were recorded, and we wanted to pay homage to that." Today, it's a private-hire space with its own record player and large vinyl collection, so guests can create their own soundtrack.
At Ynyshir in Powys, chef Gareth Ward takes a different approach. "Music's massive, but not for the dining experience – for the chefs. We have an open kitchen, the chefs do all the serving and cooking, and the music sets the tempo, gets everyone in the zone." During the day, that might be something like Foals or Rolling Stones. At night, funky New York house.
The music's there for all to hear in the restaurant, which means some diners may not take to it. "Everything we do is that way I want to do it. Some are going to like the music, some might not; each to their own. We have the confidence. It's quite loud but not in your face, you can still speak to each other," Ward explains. While there are occasional complaints, Ward's reply is: "I'm sorry, that's the way it is, this isn't the place for you."
Dan Keeling, co-founder of Noble Rot, a wine bar and restaurant in London, takes another tack regarding music. "It can be a distraction," he explains. "It's such a strong flavour, it can divide people. When I go to a restaurant I want to eat, drink and talk to friends, not be bombarded with music to make me feel another way."
Keeling worked in the music industry for years, and is evidently a music lover (he's even helping a Liverpool wine bar, Buyers Club, match albums to wines). But he is wary of the way music can encourage emotion, whether melancholic, saccharine or euphoric. "I don't want to feel that when I'm eating. The best soundtrack is the rumble of lively conversation."
Noble Rot, however, does play songs, at least in the more relaxed wine bar at the front. "We have a record player in the bar now. We don't really want staff turning up with iPods playing playlists willy nilly." The repertoire includes mod-ish but inoffensive material, such as Hot Chip's new album. "Make sure it's got a good feel, but not in your face," he concludes.
Restaurants take vastly different approaches to the controversial topic. Some, like Fergus Henderson's St. John in London, refuse to play any at all. Others, like David Chang's celebrated Momofuko in New York (and Black Axe Mangal, whose head chef, incidentally, previously worked at St. John) even have their own Spotify playlists, so you can tune into the chef's music from home, perhaps while attempting to recreate their food.
But do restaurants deliberately choose music to alter a customer's mindset? Some do, says Spence. He points to certain chains which beam out up-tempo music at busy times (presumably to speed people up), while dropping the slow jams at quieter hours. Loud music can make it harder to discern a drink's alcohol content, perhaps enabling customers to buy more. Classical music, apparently, makes diners spend more than they would listening to pop.
Ultimately, some of us like music while we eat, others don't – a fine line restaurants must learn to tread (or set their stall firmly on one side). "I love it when there's music on at restaurants," says Ward. "My two favourite things are music and food, and it's an incredible combination. Somebody said loud music ruins your taste buds, but it's absolute bulls--t."
On the other hand, Keeling admits, "I love music, but don't want to do a million and one things at the same time, which we're all guilty of nowadays. Value your senses and focus on them."